I have, over the years, learned to read the language of anxiety.
Run of the mill fear or upset comes as a spike up through the calm floor of the day: a sudden and sharp swell of panic or irritation or sadness when, say, I have to slam my brakes on in traffic due to someone else’s negligence or I hear horrible news. But anxiety is different. It creeps in slowly, by degree: a restlessness that turns into a tension in the jaw, a knot in the stomach, circling thoughts, a consuming jitter of uncertainty that persists in the background of whatever I am doing.
I’ve mentioned here before that I have sometimes struggled with anxiety, and that it differs from run of the mill fear or upset because it is not grounded in any particular incident or anything rational: it only ever crops up due to a specific trigger (flying!) or catastrophic what-if thinking. As a Christian, this feels to me a lot like a horrible failure. I’ve spent what feels like decades tackling my anxiety by praying for “God’s peace,” which many well-meaning books (and sometimes believers) have implied will show up to wipe away all the bad feelings when I finally have enough faith in God.
And then a thunderstorm happened this week, and God taught me a great deal through it about what peace, fear, anxiety, and Christian courage look like in practice. It wasn’t what I expected.
My work commute requires me to spend the majority of my commute on a major eight-lane interstate, which is something that, prior to taking this job, I did not particularly enjoy. In the year since taking the job, however, I’ve grown used to it. Except for the early-morning rain.
Interstate driving is, at the best of times, attention-demanding. In the rain and the morning dark, I find it nerve-wracking. I suffer from a minor degree of night blindness which causes me to struggle in low-light situations, so the combination of bright headlines, glare, darkness, plus the high interstate speeds and the general problems of drivers behaving badly keep me on a knife-edge of tension. Glasses have helped a great deal, but the experience is stressful. I don’t like it. And it summons up a lot of anxiety.
For a long time, this resulted in me praying away rain on the morning commute. And for a long time, God largely obliged. When rain did come, it was mostly a manageable shower. But the area I live in attracts some pretty intense thunderstorms, and so when those inevitably came, the mornings found me a wreck. I got nervous reading the weather forecasts. When I got into the car and the garage door opened to reveal sheets of rain, a pit opened up in my stomach.
As with other things that cause me anxiety, I have spent an inordinate amount of time praying for “God’s peace” about this, which I put in parentheses here as above because I have always had a specific idea of what that meant: calm. A lack of anxiety. If and when I have enough faith, I felt – when I believe God enough—I will step into my car, or onto a plane, and I will feel what the saints must have felt: unimaginable levels of absolute chill. I will laugh in the face of fear. I will sing into the storm.
And then this week happened, and when I walked out to the garage, the door opened to reveal what my dad calls a “gully-washer”: an epic, thunder-and-lightning storm, and roads glossy black in the darkness. “Man,” I muttered, staring out at it. “Oh well! We had a good run of dry mornings.” I threw my lunchbox in the car.
“Hey, you’ve progressed,” my husband said cheerfully. I glanced at him. “The first time you saw a thunderstorm like this in the morning you about cried,” he pointed out, and it was true. “Today you just look sort of inconvenienced.”
It made me laugh, and I got into the car and pulled out.
It wasn’t until halfway through the drive that I realized something. Yes, I still felt anxious: my stomach had a little knot in it, and I was definitely tense. But I was also fine, in spite of the tenseness. In fact, without my realizing it, my internal dialogue had changed from I feel awful I don’t want to do this where is God to: well, yeah, you don’t love this, and you probably never will. But you can manage it, and it’ll be fine, because God’s here. In other words, I’d recognized the physical feeling as a natural consequence of the situation, but was also able to dismiss it because I knew God would handle things.
And it occurred to me that this was God’s peace: not the absence of bad feelings, but the ability to acknowledge them and persevere knowing God loves me and will handle my circumstances, whatever they may be.
I’m not saying that God doesn’t remove feelings of anxiety and stress from believers. I know that He does. But I also think that if we view “God’s peace” only ever as “God took all my uncomfortable feelings away” then most of us will believe we have never actually known it. We are human. Sometimes proceeding forward without fear and in peace does not mean “proceeding forward without a knot in the belly or any tension” but, rather, “proceeding forward confidently even with a knot in the belly and tension because we know God has this well in hand.”
I also think, for what it’s worth, that this is a tremendous exercise in faith and growth. It is, frankly, easy to proceed forward when you feel no discomfort. When everything in your body is green-lighting your circumstances, choosing God is easy. But when your body is saying no and you make the conscious effort in heart and mind and spirit to testify even so, I am moving forward in acknowledgement that God is present and involved, that’s a faith-step, the choosing of God over doubt, over fear, over uncertainty.
I used to wonder why I “never” felt God’s peace when I was anxious. I understand now that I do, and that it something that has developed over time and over years and over prayer: not the vanishing of every uncomfortable stomach clench or tightening tension, but the understanding that I have the liberty to disregard those temporary feelings because God is present and in entire control.
Wherever you are in your daily life, I wish that for you, too.